By Jackie Berg and Marge Sorge
Aubrey Lee Sr. spent his life inspiring others and instilling the value of ethics, integrity and kindness. He mentored captains of industry, politicians, clergy, sports figures, budding entrepreneurs as well as Detroit’s less fortunate citizenry believed to be unbankable. And, he believed strongly in diversity and the need for every individual to have equal opportunity as well as equal accountability.
He started his career on the lower rungs in the banking community and progressed to become one of the highest ranking African Americans in banking. He was appointed chairman, president and CEO of NBD Troy in 1980 and later became senior vice president at NBD’s corporate headquarters. He used those positions to help would-be minority homeowners get mortgages and entrepreneurs get loans for their up-and-coming businesses, something that previously had been next to impossible for them. Not only did Lee help many minorities get loans, he continued to mentor and help them achieve the highest level of financial success possible.
Some call Aubrey Lee a trailblazer. Some call him a legend. Some call him a hero. He was all that, but above all he was a loving husband, father, and grandfather and a man many were privileged to call friend.
Lee, 80, died October 9, but his light will continue to shine through his wife Jeane, sons Aubrey, Jr., David and Mark, grandchildren and those he helped reach their potential. They will continue to make difference thanks to his advice and counsel.
Tributes for Aubrey Lee have poured in from all walks of life. We want to share a few with you. First from Governor Snyder and Mayor Duggan …
“I salute Mr. Lee’s pioneering work in Detroit’s banking industry and thank him for his leadership and service to the Motor City and state of Michigan. Then, as now, Detroit looks to business leaders as community leaders as well. Aubrey Lee for decades provided opportunities for minority bankers and loans to minority businesses, helping them grow and building a long and proud legacy.” – Governor Rick Snyder, State of Michigan
“Aubrey Lee, Sr. believed in Detroit, and he believed in Detroiters. He stepped up for countless minority small-business owners and gave them the chance to follow their dreams. He helped make Detroit a city of opportunity for an entire generation of African-American entrepreneurs. For that, we all owe him a great debt of gratitude.” – Mike Duggan, Mayor City of Detroit
Lee was an emeritus member of Beaumont Health System’s board. Beaumont’s leadership remembers him as a man committed to diversity and to bringing out the best in everyone he met.
“I was heartbroken to hear of Aubrey Lee Sr.’s passing. My deepest sympathies go to his wife Jeane, and sons Aubrey Lee, Jr., David Lee and Mark S. Lee, as well as his grandchildren. He was a great mentor to many at Beaumont and in the community. On a personal note, he was a great influencer for me as a chief operating officer and finally as a CEO.
Aubrey displayed a prodigious amount of energy and he could energize others to aspire to be their best. He certainly had a great passion for Beaumont and for advancing diversity throughout our health system and the community. He moved us forward in this arena. We will honor his memory and legacy by continuing his work.” – Gene Michalski, (Retired) CEO Beaumont Health.
“Rarely have I encountered persons in my work life that have had a profound impact on me both professionally and personally. I can pretty much count them on one hand. One of those persons is Aubrey Lee, Sr. Not only has Aubrey been a mentor and role model to me, he is a dear friend.
I met Aubrey ten years ago. He was an active member on the board of directors at Beaumont Health System and I had just been hired as diversity director. Aubrey challenged me to be an agent of change and he supported me in my efforts to do so. I have learned so much from him.
Wisdom he imparted on me: show respect – and you will get respect, be confident, speak up, and be on time. Whenever I had a meeting with Aubrey, he would arrive before me. I started getting to meetings with him at least fifteen minutes early. I would walk in and low and behold – there he sat smiling as if to say, ‘you’re on time Lauren, but I still beat you here.’
Anyone who knows Aubrey knows that it was his personal mission to pay it forward. This has been especially evident in his steadfast and ongoing efforts to pave the way for African Americans in their career paths. Always holding me and other executive leaders accountable, Aubrey brought passion and commitment to diversity business imperatives at Beaumont.
During his tenure on the board, afterwards as an emeritus board member, and beyond, as a dear friend, Aubrey has been instrumental in my life, my growth as a person and as a champion for inclusion within Beaumont and our community. Aubrey has touched the lives of so many, opening doors for numerous African Americans in banking and beyond, shaping careers, lives and our community. For me, he is a dear friend and a father figure who has made a lasting imprint on my heart. – Lauren Hill, System Director, Diversity, Beaumont Health
The banking community saluted his pioneering efforts and remembered him a teacher and mentor.
“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Aubrey Lee. Aubrey spent the last ten years of his illustrious career at Fifth Third advising our senior staff and mentoring leaders throughout the Bank. We in essence, became the recipients of the residue resulting from the vast experiences that Aubrey pioneered along the path of his life. I can tell you that the bank, and me personally, are greatly enriched by having worked alongside such a man as Aubrey Lee. We will miss his wisdom, his passion and most of all his friendship. Rest in peace Aubrey, you left this world a better place than you found it.” – David F. Girodat, President, Fifth Third Bank Eastern Michigan
“I am reminded of my last visit with Aubrey Lee, only last month, where he was directing me to read an article he had come across and to make copies to distribute to the rest of the senior team at Fifth Third Bank. He was frail, and his voice was weak but his passion was in full evidence and his mind sharp as he pointed to a lesson that could be learned about how people of different races were mistreating each other. He was forever the teacher and mentor whether it was business, race relations or personal matters. What will sustain us in the emptiness that is Aubrey’s loss will be those moments like this, when he taught us something, or touched our soul with enlightenment transported through the experiences of his life. Thanks for sharing Aubrey…and Jeane…and rest in peace my friend.” – Jack Riley, Senior Vice President, Marketing Director, Fifth Third Bank Eastern Michigan
“I can’t begin to describe how much Aubrey Lee has meant to me throughout the years as I have progressed in my career in banking. His pioneering spirit helped to fuel my own passion to succeed as an African American woman in what had been a male dominated industry. His story, that he so generously shared, inspired me to break through barriers by working hard, valuing relationships and never backing down from a challenge. There are literally hundreds of stories like mine, of people that were mentored by Aubrey Lee and are in leadership positions across this town. We will feel the loss of Aubrey Lee but his presence will continue on in all of us who knew and loved him and of whom he gave so much of himself. Rest in Peace Aubrey.” – Byna Elliott, Senior Vice President, Community Economic Development, Fifth Third Bank Eastern Michigan
Lee helped many in the clergy get a start in their businesses.
“Aubrey Lee Sr. is the godfather of the African American banking community in Detroit. As a young college student, he helped me obtain my first job at National Bank of Detroit (NBD). Being that type of champion, he opened the doors for many African Americans in the banking industry for employment that led to many management and vice president positions. He also paved the way for many African American businesses to have access to capital that would lead to a stronger – vibrant community. I salute him for his vision, leadership and community stewardship.” – Bishop Dr. Edgar Vann II, Senior Pastor, Second Ebenezer Church
“As a young African American businessman in the 80s, I truly respect what Aubrey Lee was able to accomplish in the banking industry. He opened doors that would otherwise be closed to black businesses. Aubrey is more than a good man he is a great friend. As his spirit comes out he produces a smile on your face. I’m glad to have had him in my life.” – Rev. V. Lonnie Peek, Interim Pastor, New Calvary Baptist Church
The Detroit Regional Chamber remembers him as a positive influence on business and the city of Detroit.
“Few have done more to support small businesses in Detroit than Aubrey Lee, Sr. His impact continues to reverberate throughout our community, particularly with so many of the minority business owners and financial professionals he helped to succeed and realize their dreams. While today brings sad news, his positive influence continues and his lessons on helping transform small businesses into cornerstones of the community could not be more important to the future of Detroit.” – Dan Piepszowski, Senior Director of Community Leadership Development, Detroit Regional Chamber
It is only fitting close this blog with a tribute from a long-time friend who he challenged and mentored to keep making a difference.
“Recognized trailblazer Aubrey Lee’s leadership meant many things to many people. His very name became a hallmark of integrity in Detroit. He taught many young professionals, including myself, about the power of maintaining honor and investment in Detroit. And those lessons are reaping dividends among the many leaders he mentored and will continue to proudly carry on his remarkable legacy today, tomorrow and for many decades to come.
His unwavering faith in Detroit and its citizenry challenged bankers’ long-held beliefs that minority candidates were too high-risk to bank on. Countless homeowners and successful business owners benefited by his humble stewardship, which will continue to reap dividends for future Detroiters.
“You are making a difference Jackie. Carry on regardless obstacles,” he said, in our final visit last week.
I will, Aubrey. Indeed, we all will. We owe that to you and to each other.” – Jackie Berg – Founder & Publisher TheHUB Magazine
The family will receive friends Wednesday, October 14, from 2:00-8:00 pm with Omega Psi Phi service (time pending) at A.J. Desmond & Sons (Vasu, Rodgers & Connell Chapel), 32515 Woodward (between 13-14 Mile Rds.), Royal Oak. The funeral service will be held Thursday, October 15 at 11:00 am at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church, 1100 Lone Pine Rd. at Telegraph Rd., Bloomfield Hills. Visitation at church begins at 10:00 am.
Memorial tributes can be made to the American Heart Association or Cross of Christ Lutheran Church.